Scholars Discuss How U.S. Higher Education Can Avoid Decline

WASHINGTON – Are the nation’s institutions of higher education growing too set in their ways? U.S. higher education is widely viewed as an American success story during the 20th century, but it’s facing a series of major challenges that threaten that preeminence, said Dr. Dominic Brewer, associate dean for research and faculty affairs and the Clifford H. and Betty C. Allen Professor in Urban Leadership at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California.

Speaking at a forum titled “Reinventing the American University,” sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) for Public Policy Research last week, Brewer said those challenges include demographic shifts, a changing economy, and a declining public funding base.

Population growth, he explained, will lead to restrictions on the number of people attending college if schools cannot accommodate them. In addition, the demographic groups that will show the greatest growth are those that have traditionally been underserved by post-secondary institutions, thus posing a challenge to institutions to expand access.

There have been complaints that there has been too little innovation and too slow an adoption of innovations at colleges and universities.

“This really pushes an imperative on all of us in public and private institutions to try to figure out how to meet capacity needs in the 21st century,” Brewer said. “If you walk into any classroom on a college campus today, it looks much like it did 100 years ago and the core technology is essentially unchanged in most traditional institutions.” In addition, he said they tend to push away from innovation and toward mimicry and the overproduction of doctorates or degrees in fields that aren’t necessarily productive in the labor market.

Other challenges discussed during the forum included the way higher education is funded, such as its heavy reliance on significant state subsidies loosely tied to enrollment rather than results; targeting funding to operations; and a regulatory environment at both federal and state levels that impedes the growth of certain types of higher education, such as online delivery. Accreditation is also frequently cited as a source of standardization rather than a source of quality control within the sector, Brewer said.

When much of the innovation comes from new entrants who thrive on taking risks and challenging traditional ways of doing things, the accreditation process hinders that effort, Brewer said.

“It has been suggested that higher education suffers from what economists call Baumol’s cost disease, which is the idea that, in a service-based, labor-intensive industry like education, improvements in productivity are extremely difficult,” Brewer said.

Policy solutions might include pushing institutions to specialize more, so as to reduce duplication. Rather than providing guaranteed funding, governments might think about ways to use funding to incentivize innovation directly. Brewer pointed to the U.S. Education Department’s “Race to the Top” initiative as an interesting way to spur institutions to think differently and become more competitive.

Dr. William Massey, a higher education consultant and an emeritus professor and former vice president of Stanford University, discussed the paper “Creative Paths to Boosting Academic Research” that he authored for the AEI forum. He pointed to the desire of many universities to seek prestige over productivity improvement. Barriers to innovation are mostly cultural, he added, but boosting productivity fundamentally boils down to leadership, providing resources, and offering the right incentives.

Dr. Ronald Ehrenberg, the Irving M. Ives Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Economics at Cornell University and director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute, drew upon his paper “Rethinking the Professoriate” and began by declaring that tenured and tenure-track faculty are an endangered species.

Since 1970, according to Ehrenberg, there has been a decline in full-time tenured faculty from 80 percent to slightly above 50 percent and a doubling of the percentage of full-time faculty not on tenure-tracks to almost 40 percent, which means that only one-third of teachers have tenure or are on a tenure track, he said.

Ehrenberg also believes that a reliance on lower cost, full-time, non-tenure-track faculty and part-time instructors will have an adverse effect on student outcomes. Ehrenberg also worries that it could decrease students’ interest in pursuing Ph.D.s. This would in turn reduce the supply of Ph.D.s at universities and other kinds of research enterprises, he said.

Other forum papers discussed included “What Online Learning Can Teach Us About Higher Education” and “Barriers to Innovation in U.S. Higher Education.” To read the papers on which these discussions were based, click here.